"Dude, a plane just ran into World Trade!"
Just after 9am and I was about to leave for work. Jogen's enthusiasm notwithstanding, I was certain it was just an errant Cessna. Nothing big.
Until I walked over to the TV and saw the second plane hit.
"Fuck me." I said.
"We have to get on the roof." Jogen said.
I grabbed my binoculars and camera and headed up the stairs. We can only see the North Tower from our roof, but the next building had a view of both. We're maybe 2 miles away. They were quite clearly on fire, the gaping hole in the North Tower a big black eye.
I climbed over to the other building, thinking to myself that if I fell, I could expect no help for a while. Sirens were omnipresent in the background (and never went away the whole day). Now I could see the South Tower and the gash of fire across its East face.
I used the binoculars to get up close. The fire was intense and the smoke column huge. I could make out details of debris hanging from the impact zones. I suddenly realized I might see someone jump and jerked the scopes down. Even with the naked eye the fire was obvious.
I took a picture.
Jogen didn't follow me up, so I came down and we resumed staring agape at the TV coverage. I was trying to get through to my Dad in New Orleans, hitting redial every couple minutes. As the South Tower came down I finally got through.
The dust cloud from the collapse enveloped basically all of lower Manhattan. From the Statue of Liberty, you couldn't see any of it. I think that's the most amazing real thing I've ever seen on TV. I explained to my dad that I was fine and now that he knew that, he should go put CNN on. By the time I got off the phone, the North Tower had collapsed. This was beyond words. I had to go back up on the adjacent building to see with my own eyes.
Sure enough, they were gone.
I took another picture. The ongoing smoke cloud blanketed lower Manhattan as far North as a few blocks South of me.
Jogen works in WTC7, but not until 11am. His boss tells the story of hearing the initial plane hit the North Tower (just South of WTC7). They saw debris rain down past the windows. Their boss wanted everyone to get back to work, but there was a popular revolt in favor of evacuation. They didn't notice the second plane hit the South Tower (too far away, and too busy trying to evacuate). As they all exited the building, the South Tower gave way. They had to run away to keep from being killed. Jogen's boss says he saw 6 or 7 bodies fall behind him before he willed himself to quit watching. Another co-worker saw dozens of people jump.
We spent much of the day on the phone, emailing, and hosting friends who were cut off from home. About 5pm some of us decided to walk down and get as close as we could. We didn't really expect to get close, but wanted to see what we could. We had seen the footage of people coated in soot, running for their lives, multiple angles of the jet piercing the skin of the South Tower, the mute horror of twin stumps of rubble. Now we wanted to see it up close.
Not that we could get close, mind you. New York's Finest were on the case, keeping us at a more-than-safe distance. We worked our way down to the financial district on the East side. We had to don our masks to avoid inhaling the debris. We carried goggles to protect our eyes.
We descended into a vision of apocalyptic New York. The light was low from the overhanging dark cloud of smoke. A grey coating covered everything. People who had been in the area any length of time were growing their own ash coat. A guy in a suit was paralleling our path, simply checking things out silently. He stood staring at an outdoor cafe worthy of any nuclear holocaust movie.
Almost a mile from the towers, through a maze of big buildings the soot was inches deep. The streets were littered with letters, analyses, computer printouts. All had started the day in some filing cabinet in one of the towers. Look up and the sky is thick with more on the way. Hundreds just in my field of view, on this street, almost 8 hours after they fell.
Photographers, both amateur and pro were buzzing about. One would approach vehicles with deep layers of ash and write "War" in them and then snap a shot. Indeed, the ash on the walls were a canvas for more than a few propagandists. Nothing exceptional, just the polar ends of war and peace.
Most views were too subtle for the lens: the correspondence precipitation, the vivid sky blue hole at the end of the street under sky-high black clouds. Those we would just have to remember.
We continued South, looking for a way West. All the way to Battery Park. Our navigation was in relation to the still billowing clouds sweeping across the island. The smoke dominated the skyline much like the building it used to be.
Once around Battery Park, the wind was in our face, pushing soot and ash into our eyes. We walked due North, toward the towers. We had to detour West from police roadblocks. At one, Scott asked how we could get to the West side and the cop told us to go back and then up. As we turned to go, another cop in the group said "Fucking sightseers." Can't really blame him.
We were as West as we could go. The Hudson River. A small inlet for boats and a walkway along the riverfront, not a half-mile from ground zero. Here's where we saw the collection of abandoned baby strollers. Some had lunchboxes (one with the name Louis carved into it). Another had a half-eaten banana and a single baby sandal. This stroller was parked on top of several sheets of the ubiquitous previously-filed paper. A boat arrived with doctors and nurses from Jersey.
This was it. One last attempt got us a smokey view of something we were pretty sure wasn't either of the towers, but hey, who knew what shape they'd be in now anyway? We retraced our steps back down, around, and up the East side.
Overheard: a big, burly brother saying "You gotta hand it to him, he got there before the second plane hit..." speaking of Mayor Giuliani. Two latinas lapsing into english: "It's that goddamn Bush's fault..." Two more latinas talking about the lack of money in any ATM in the city: "it's all those people who walked over from world trade, they took it all out..." as they walked North to find a working ATM to buy food.
Scott found a partially scorched piece of paper that said "Good Morning!"
I found one that said "$1 million for pain and suffering."
Check out the album of our walk.